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  • Trauma and the Memory of Politics
  • Kathryn Palmer
Trauma and the Memory of Politics. By Jenny Edkins. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003; pp ix + 265. $23.00.

Just as Pericles commemorated the dead for the sake of the state's survival in his funeral oration, so too do modern states remember lost lives as a means of preserving power. To be sure, such memorialization is timeless, yet it is in Jenny Edkins's groundbreaking analysis that we gain, perhaps for the first time, an adequate awareness of the significance of this relationship between trauma, memory, and power. Edkins's illuminating study succeeds in demonstrating that while the memorialization process is a search for meaning, the state has a propensity to use this process as a method for establishing meaning. Edkins argues that trauma is not experienced at the moment of occurrence and preserved in memory, but is in fact experienced through memory and throughout time.

Edkins's study reveals that while the creation of a memorial may be a state's attempt to fix memory in a certain way, memorialization is a discursive and contingent process and product. In turn, the public's interaction with memorials [End Page 516] and artifacts is capable of being personal, subjective, and contextual and may in this sense challenge the state's discursive authority over the nation's narrative history. In sum, this is a book about the dangers and inadequacies of the state's efforts to fix the nation's memories of traumatic events. It also explores the potential of proper memorialization that pays respect not only to the traumatic event, but to its evolving meaning throughout time.

Edkins uses her first two chapters to establish key themes, such as the relationship between trauma, discourse, and memory. Trauma creates a difficulty in and need for remembering, and, Edkins observes, the "production of memory is a performative practice, and inevitably social" (54). The state's attempt to put memorialization in stasis actually represents a kind of forgetting, for by seeking to fix and define an experience, exclusions to what that experience can mean are created. After providing a theoretical framework for the traumatic and temporal components of trauma time and its relationship with memory in chapter 2, Edkins uses this analysis to raise various questions regarding memory production, which she examines in various contexts throughout the book.

Chapter 3 centers on a discussion of two memorials that serve as examples of trauma time: the Cenotaph in London and the Vietnam Wall in Washington D.C. They are also exceptions to memorials that are coopted by the state precisely because they lack a narrative and "encircle," rather than define, trauma. More importantly, Edkins discusses the discursive nature of not only the commemorative product, but the process. What is particularly interesting is this discursive and creative process of how we decide how to commemorate (and of whom "we" consists). This chapter shows how both the process and product of commemoration can shed light on the experience of trauma, and vice versa. In the remainder of chapter 3, Edkins draws our attention to the oppositional relationship between personal mourning and the "creation of a nationalist myth of war" (93). A valuable example of this is her riveting discussion of 9/11 and President George W. Bush's early rush to commemorate it, which, she argues, "can be seen as an attempt, ill-judged and premature perhaps, to secure the authority of the state, reinforce the narrative of the nation and produce closure in the face of events that had thrown all three into question" (103).

Edkins's fourth chapter examines circumstances in which trauma occurred at the hands of the state: namely, holocausts, genocides, and famines. This chapter builds on questions raised in chapter 3 and brings up other pertinent questions regarding our inclination and (in)ability to preserve reality; the preservation and reconstruction of Nazi concentration camps is a poignant example. From a review of comments in concentration camp visitor books to a compelling use of the film Memento to illustrate the problematic nature of [End Page 517] memory and "facts," chapter 4 chiefly explores the rift between history and memory and the...


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pp. 516-519
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